Lidia Bastianich at Luce on Sunday, anticipating a feast for KLRN benefit.
San Antonio loves Lidia Bastianich.
So many people in town watch her show on KLRN that it ranks consistently among her highest markets. And when Joe Buonincontri of Luce Ristorante e Enoteca announced that she would be appearing at his restaurant on Huebner Road for a fundraiser for the local PBS station, tickets went quickly. Both a dinner and a lunch in her honor sold out in seven days, he said, leaving plenty of Lidia fans without a seat. "I wish we'd had another 200 tickets for sale," he added.
So do the folks at KLRN. The station's president and CEO, Mario Vazquez, was so taken with Bastianich that he was ready to invite her back next year.
Bastianich returned the compliment by saying that when she got into television, she only had two conditions: one was that it be for PBS and the other was that they had to film it in her home. PBS was, and is, important to her, because "I'm about education," she said. And her desire to film at home was so that she wouldn't be intimidated by the cameras.
Bastianich, who started her first restaurant, Buonavia, in 1971, came to TV through the guidance of another PBS great, Julia Child.
Just mentioning Child's name sent Bastianich's voice into a higher and more nasal pitch as she imitated the legendary star of "The French Chef": "Julia came to me and said, 'Could you do a show with me?'"
Rolled Eggplant with Ricotta.
That pinched tone in her voice had the gathering of food lovers laughing as they sampled early treats of the evening, including rolled eggplant with ricotta cheese; spaghetti macaroni, a baked pasta dish with salami, eggs and a little heat; stuffed artichoke hearts; and bruschetta with a nice touch of garlic.
The crowd extended beyond the packed dining room and into Luce's private dining area, where Buonincontri's own family were enjoying themselves. The restaurateur's mother, Mary Ann, whose recipes are used in Luce's menu, had come in from Tarpon Springs, Fla., for the dinner, along with his sister, cousins and more. Dishes were served family style, so everyone could taste as much as he or she wanted. The traditional offerings, from enormous meatballs smothered in tomato sauce to salsiccia and braciole, added a flavorful sense of history and family to the evening, which Bastianich pointed out in her presentation.
"That's what life is all about — family," Bastianich said, adding that her 93-year-old mother lives with her and can occasionally be seen in the background during the filming.
It may seem odd coming from a winemaker and merchant with the last name of Mondavi, but Michael Mondavi of Folio Fine Wine Partners shared the same message.
"My grandfather realized that the food, the family table — the culture that surrounds the family table — was the most important," he said. His wife, Isabel, continues that approach today, he added, by stressing the "people, friendships and conversations" that can spark over a shared meal, resulting in a magical, memorable evening.
Michael Mondavi at KLRN benefit dinner at Luce.
Food is second on Mondavi's list, with wine coming in third. "Wine is there to complement the friendships, the food," he said.
To that end, Folio offers Isabel Mondavi or I'M, wines that are designed to "clean the palate and excite the taste buds in anticipation of the next bite of food," he said. The lineup includes a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a rosé, all made by son Rob Mondavi Jr. to suit his mother's tastes and pair well with food. A pair of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, Emblem and the exceptional but hard-to-find M by Michael Mondavi, also served the food and fun of the evening well.
Braciole served with a crouton topped with fresh burrata.
Bastianich said she picked up her love of cooking from her grandmother, something she shares in common with Mary Ann Buonincontri.
That tradition doesn't always get handed down any more, which has led to a generation of people who think they cannot cook. They're wrong, Bastianich said. If those folks tried even a half-hearted visit to the kitchen, they'd learn that cooking is well within their reach.
"Everybody can do something with food," she said. "There are (merely) different levels."
With that in mind, Bastianich is launching a new book this fall, "Lidia's Common Sense Cooking," which is designed to get more people into the kitchen and preparing meals for themselves and their families.
What could be better? Families might come together more over a home-cooked meal. They might talk a little, share some food and a glass of wine, and the cycle both Bastianich and Mondavi spoke of would carry on.
Photographs by John Griffin and Bonnie Walker
Restaurateur Joe Buonincontri with family, including from left in front of Joe, his wife, Renee, son Nicholas, sister Joanne and mom, Mary Ann.